What makes Katha Pollitt’s new book Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories (Random House) compulsively readable is the frankness with which Pollitt brings her politics to bear on the everyday. This should not come as a surprise. As a columnist at The Nation for the past 13 years, she has used her own life as a jumping off point to examine the political world. Her Oct. 8, 2001 column “Put Out No Flags,” about her disagreement with her daughter over flying the American flag after 9⁄11, won her spot #74 in Bernard Goldberg’s 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. She told her daughter, “Definitely not, I say: The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war.” Conservatives put out a public call for patriots to send “Miss Pollitt” a flag.
More recently, she described her pension benefits, courtesy of the British government in honor of her recent marriage to a British citizen. “For outmoded historical reasons, our society makes marriage the key to a host of social goods, from health insurance and death benefits to the right to make medical decisions for a loved one – and get a last-minute pension like my own.” As thrilled as she is with the windfall, she’s “happy to pay for my own gin and lime.”
Pollitt’s fourth book – preceded by three collections of essays and a volume of poetry – turns the tables, bringing her sharp wit and clear prose to bear on her own life. It is about, among other things, infidelity, breakups, motherhood, alcoholism and pornography. And it may be the best political work you’ll pick up this year.
The book opens with two essays originally published in the New Yorker in which Pollitt explores the aftermath of a long relationship. In the title essay, Pollitt writes about taking driving lessons in New York City after her boyfriend has left her. “I did not realize,” she writes wryly, “that the man I lived with, my soul mate, made for me in Marxist heaven, was a dedicated philanderer.” The lessons become a means of exploring the tangle of the politics she has worn on her sleeve and the helplessness she feels. “I’m not the only older woman who can’t legally drive … but perhaps I am the only 52-year-old feminist writer in this position.”
She comes to realize that the Marxist study group her boyfriend formed was as much a study in his sexual proclivities as it was politics. With a bemusement that few people bring to the heavy-handed subject of political theory, she writes, “That was the dark side – the rivalries and sexual undercurrents, the fetish of the arcane, the political passivity that coexisted strangely with a belief that something terribly important and real, something we called ‘politics,’ was taking place right there.”
The consummate columnist, Pollitt pulls the threads of multiple stories into a cohesive whole. In her discussion of the evolution of childrearing, she writes, “The discourse of parenting … featured men, lots of men, writing in the aren’t‑I-adorable mode favored by male freelance writers when they venture into the personal, churning out clever 750-word pieces about coaching their daughter’s soccer team, helping with homework, explaining why the dog died.” The problem, Pollitt points out, is that “anyone with eyes in her head could see that mothers were still doing most of the work.” The double standards have resurfaced. Women writing about their lives are in the confessional, while men telling the same stories are breaking new ground.
In telling us of her own life, Pollitt makes a compelling case that the politics we’ve all been striving for have made a material difference in the way women conceive of their lives. In an essay on her mother, Pollitt writes of her self-doubt about juggling motherhood and a career. “I had to read endless articles about women writers having babies and continuing to publish book after book, sometimes even books that said new and shocking things about being a mother, before I could imagine that life for myself.”
Pollitt received a remarkably snotty review in the New York Times Book Review, (See “The Times vs. Feminism”). Such consternation over Pollitt’s memoir goes beyond just the Book Review’s infamous women problem. It betrays a deep unwillingness to acknowledge that our lives are where our politics are enacted. Pollitt tells of her parent’s FBI files and the unspoken secret of their communism; but her descriptions of battling the beauty double standard and how “having a baby meant becoming gender Republicans” are no less political. She notes, “And it was feminism that made it an expected, an ordinary, thing for a man and a woman to live together in their own way – they could clean the house together or just let it fall apart.”
What do we do with our politics? How do we make ideas not merely things we toss around in discussion groups? Here’s to a brave memoirist who tells us how she managed.